HC Deb 27 July 1998 vol 317 cc62-6

Amendments made: No. 209, in page 48, line 2, leave out 'its' and insert 'their'.

No. 210, in page 48, line 4, leave out 'its' and insert 'their'.—[Mr. Paul Murphy.]

Question proposed, That this schedule, as amended, be the Eighth schedule to the Bill.

Mr. McNamara

It is not my intention to delay the Committee long, but it will have seen from the amendment paper that I had tabled an amendment relating to the budget of the Human Rights Commission, which the Chairman of Ways and Means, in his wisdom, did not select.

I am concerned to ensure that the commission should be given adequate budgetary powers to enable it to carry out all its functions. It will have some significant tasks, which were outlined by the Minister. For example, when the commission consults on the new Bill of Rights, the amount of money suggested in the Bill could well be expended simply on getting reports in that connection. The question of litigation in which the commission might be involved also underlines the need for sufficient funding.

I am especially concerned about the fact that there could be considerable delays because of Northern Ireland Office scrutiny. Questions might be asked of the commission as to whether its money is properly used. It is important that all the functions of the commission should be properly funded. There should be no restrictions on any distribution of funding as among the functions that the commission has been given. It is important that there should be adequate funding because funding could affect the commission's operation, strategy, standing, credibility and independence. For example, problems arose with the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, which sometimes faced difficulties because it did not have sufficient independence and, from time to time, did not get the attention that it deserved from the Government.

The explanatory and financial memorandum notes that the costs associated with the Human Rights Commission and the new Equality Commission will be £750,000. It is important to know the spread of moneys between those two bodies. I hope that I have put down a couple of cautionary markers to the Minister as to how the money will be allocated and the impact of that allocation.

Mr. John D. Taylor

We have already discussed the importance of having a community balance in the commission's membership. Schedule 8 also refers to the commission's staff.

In Northern Ireland, we have experience of fair employment legislation. We have a Fair Employment Commission, which is supposed to ensure a proper balance of employment among institutions and businesses. However, one of the worst examples of imbalance in employment is to be found among the staff of the Fair Employment Commission itself. Throughout its entire history, it has always had among its employees an imbalance to the disadvantage of the Protestant community. It has never rectified that imbalance and has been a failure to the extent that it has not set an example to other employers in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it would not be sufficient for us to assume that applying the present fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland would mean a proper balance within the staff of the new commission, unless the schedule stated clearly—as it does in respect of the membership of the commission—that the staff should likewise reflect the community in Northern Ireland.

6.15 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

In the earlier debate, some concern was expressed about what community balance actually meant. It seemed that the Minister did not know the meaning of the phrase, because he kept on talking about there being more discussions over the summer months. My right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), who was a member of the talks team, was anxious to have the matter clarified but did not, if I may say so, receive any clarification from the Minister.

We do not yet know whether community balance with regard to the commissioners is based on religious persuasion, political persuasion or on something else, or whether there will be representation involving people who have migrated to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, the Irish Republic or elsewhere. Nor do we know how the atheists and agnostics are to be represented.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford also referred to a different body that has an imbalance in its staff. Another imbalance in that body is that Mr. Cooper has always been the most prominent of its members—

Mr. John D. Taylor

Sir Robert.

Mr. Ross

Yes, he is Sir Robert now. He has been well rewarded for his services to the community in Northern Ireland. It seems that no one other than he has been able to fill the post that he has held.

Dr. Godman


Mr. Ross

I shall continue, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

Paragraph 2(2) of schedule 8 states that the chief commissioner shall not be appointed for more than five years at a time and that any other commissioner shall not be appointed for more than three years at a time. We need to know how many five-year or three-year terms those individuals will be permitted to serve, as we do not want a permanent occupant of the post being established. Indeed, I think that most of us would be greatly put out if we were to discover that Sir Robert Cooper was to transfer to the new body.

We are also deeply concerned about lines 4 and 5 on page 48 of the Bill, which state that the commission may make provision about the discharge of its functions by committees (which may include non-commissioners)". In the circumstances, perhaps the Minister will tell us how he will ensure the balance when non-commissioners are included, as that could introduce considerable imbalance by the back door? We need to know a great deal more from the Government than we have heard hitherto.

The matter will be complicated for many years in Northern Ireland and we need to get it right. It is no use the Minister coming along in the latter stages of the Bill's passage through the House and saying, "Do not worry about it. We will get it right over the summer." At least two of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have considered the matter for many months are clearly unhappy—and, indeed, unclear—about the wording of the Bill in this regard. We certainly deserve a much more detailed explanation from the Minister than he has so far given. May we please have the information that we seek before we proceed any further?

Dr. Godman

In my view, in respect of representation on such bodies, it is entirely right and proper that the Government should seek a community balance and should attempt at all costs to avoid the creation of institutionalised sectarianism.

Mr. Ross

The hon. Gentleman has raised another interesting point. He refers to institutionalised sectarianism. In my own Church, a debate on sectarianism has raged for the past year. I always have some difficulty with that as, in essence, any religious denomination must be sectarian. Otherwise, it does away with its own reason for existence—and I do not see very many being prepared to accept that. If the hon. Gentleman has any more to say about that, I would be happy to hear it, as he has made interesting contributions to the debate. He now appears to be saying that community balance must be extended beyond those who are Roman Catholic or Protestant in the broadest sense. Later today, we will consider amendments on that point. However, if we take that route, we will find ourselves with an extremely large commission.

Mr. Corbyn

The hon. Gentleman has given the most peculiar definition of religion that I have ever heard—that it has to be based on a sectarian point of view—but I shall let that pass. In his reply to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) and me, my hon. Friend the Minister said that there would be consultation with all parties. The agreement refers not to parties but to communities that should be represented on the commission. The Minister said that, if necessary, he was prepared to introduce further amendments in the House of Lords, so is it really necessary to have a lengthy exploration of schedule 8 at this stage?

Mr. Ross

This is the perfect opportunity to have a lengthy exploration of the matters, as we did not get the explanation that we sought from the Minister. The hon. Gentleman would be well served if he went to the Library and looked up the meaning of "sectarian" in one of the very many excellent dictionaries there. He would find that I am much closer to the mark than he seems to believe.

Mr. McNamara

I thank the Committee for its patience. I want to raise one point with regard to the statements that were made about Sir Robert Cooper. Sir Robert has been a fine, principled public servant during his time at the Fair Employment Commission and, before that, at the Fair Employment Agency. He has been objective and strong, although he has not always been supported by Government to the extent that he should have been. He certainly has a reputation for impartiality throughout Northern Ireland of which any public servant would be proud, and I hope that all members of the commission, from whatever part of the community, have the same sterling virtues as Sir Robert.

Had the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) been a member of the Committee considering the legislation in the 1980s, he would recall that the agency advertised specifically for applicants from the majority community to take up places within the Fair Employment Commission. The Fair Employment Commission sought desperately to achieve and maintain a balance among the people who served on it.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I should like to raise another aspect of representativeness in the community. Like all legislation, the Bill refers constantly to "he" and "him", as if only the male half of the population could participate in the bodies concerned. This may seem a small point, so let me ask hon. Members to ask themselves whether, if the legislation referred constantly to "she" and "her", that would create an impression that it was intended solely or mostly for women.

Does the Minister agree that, in the interests of ensuring proper participation by women in the Human Rights Commission and other bodies, it is high time that the wording of legislation reflected the balance in society? If that cannot be done during the passage of the Bill, will my hon. Friend at least ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that the public are made aware that women should play a full part in the commission?

Mr. Paul Murphy

On the last point, I understand that the Interpretation Act 1978 makes it clear that the word "he" also refers to the word "she". However, I take my hon. Friend's point about the importance of women being represented on public bodies in Northern Ireland'—particularly the public body to which the schedule refers.

I shall try to answer some of the points that have been raised, but first let me make two general points that cover much of what has been said in the past 20 minutes or so.

Everyone agrees that the great success of the agreement was that it brought together nationalism and Unionism to the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland. There are of course Protestant nationalists and Catholic Unionists and it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the subtleties of the ways in which people identify themselves. That is why, in the Assembly, people are asked to identify themselves as representatives of the Unionist community or the nationalist community. I also understand that there is provision for representatives to identify themselves as neither. Everyone understands that the purpose of the agreement was to bring together people who have for many decades been bitterly divided.

We do not want to have too mechanistic a view of the composition of the commission and to tie ourselves down to a formula that is unrealistic or not sensible. We want the commission to secure human rights for everybody and to be representative of everybody. We also understand that the community cannot be represented only by people from the Upper Malone road and Balmoral. Obviously, we accept the point that, initially, appointments to the commission must be made on merit so that the people who are to do those jobs will do them well. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must ensure that people have confidence in the commission, whether they are Unionists or nationalists. That is why the Bill—and particularly the agreement—refers to the balance.

There will also be a non-statutory memorandum of understanding between the Government and the commission on various administrative matters. Clearly, we want to keep a watchful eye on the appointments and how the commission develops.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) referred to funding. He was right to draw attention to the memorandum at the beginning of the Bill, as the reference to the funding of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission is wrong. The £750,000 is for the running of the Human Rights Commission alone: it does not include the Equality Commission. My hon. Friend is right to point out that there must be adequate funding. There is no point in having a commission, which is a central part of the agreement, unless there is money to ensure that it works properly. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall ensure that the commission is properly funded.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 8, as amended, agreed to.

Forward to